NORRIDGEWOCK – U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk promised workers at the New Balance shoe factory Thursday that he will not rush into a free-trade agreement that could lift tariffs on foreign-made footwear.

Kirk, who was invited to the factory by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said he is committed to preserving American jobs while examining import duties to find a fair balance. Visiting the plant and seeing the workers in action was part of that effort, he said.

“America is not afraid of a fight and not afraid of competition,” he said. “We want to make manufacturing sexy again in America.”

New Balance employs about 900 workers at factories in Norridgewock, Oxford and Skowhegan. It is the last major footwear manufacturer still making some of its product line in the United States.

Earlier this week, state Reps. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, and Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said the message they heard Sunday at an international trade meeting in Leesburg, Va., was that protections for the footwear jobs are endangered.

An 11-nation free-trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership is being negotiated with the aim of creating jobs in the United States by increasing exports of industrial goods, agricultural products and textiles to parts of Asia and the Pacific Rim.

However, the agreement could lift some import duties on goods including athletic footwear, making imported, foreign-made shoes cheaper to buy than those made in the United States and hurting American workers.

Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, told more than 380 New Balance workers in the plant’s cafeteria that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a two-way street. If it is approved, a wide range of American-made goods will have new markets, he said.

Kirk said a tariff amounts to a direct tax on the consumer. He said the goal of his office is to have trade policies that are fair and balanced, while protecting the U.S. manufacturing base.

“The reality is, 95 percent of the world’s consumers live somewhere other than America,” Kirk said. “One of the ways we’re going to create the jobs Americans are looking for is: ‘Now we want to sell them our stuff.’

“We want kids in China, Hanoi and Brazil and Africa wearing New Balance and driving Chevys and eating food made in America. That’s the balance we’re trying to strike,” he said.

Led on a tour of the facility in Norridgewock by plant manager Raye Wentworth and New Balance President and CEO Rob DeMartini, Kirk visited work stations where some of the 4,200 pairs of athletic shoes in nine styles are made every day.

DeMartini said that he felt Kirk’s visit to Maine was encouraging. “It puts faces on the jobs and the community. We’ve been talking with him for a year and a half.”

He said he wants the tariffs maintained to protect American jobs.

Later Thursday, in a meeting with the editorial board of the Morning Sentinel, the Kennebec Journal and the Portland Press Herald, Kirk said trade agreements often include provisions with greater protection for “sensitive products.”

Tariffs such as the one on foreign-made shoes might be phased out over a longer period than others, he said, or trade agreements can continue protections for a set time while an industry adapts to a free-trade environment.

Kirk said recent trade agreements have sought to create conditions for truly fair competition by including rules for working conditions, wages, environmental regulations and even provisions for operation of government-controlled enterprises.

Also, he said, the Obama administration has put greater emphasis on enforcing provisions of existing trade agreements to make sure foreign companies play by the rules.

Kirk said he thinks the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement could be completed next year but many hard issues remain to be negotiated. The 14th round of negotiations is just wrapping up in Virginia, he said.

He said he thinks workers such as those at New Balance should realize that their concerns are being heard.

“What they want to know is, we are listening,” he said, “and we are working to strike the proper balance. If we do our jobs right and strike the right balance, we can do it in a way that hopefully keeps what New Balance is doing.” 

— Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.  

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at:

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